With his win in the Preakness, California Chrome is starting to look more like Seabiscuit with every race. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, Seabiscuit, a cast-off colt with stubby legs and an ungainly gait and loser of his first 17 races, began a remarkable run that captured the imagination of a country that could identify with an underdog overcoming long odds. Today, California Chrome, purchased for $8,000, a price that barely buys a backyard pony, is a favorite to win the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. His story, too, fits his times.
Horse racing is called the “sport of kings,” and indeed many of the nation’s finest thoroughbreds have been owned by the Vanderbilts, Mellons, Duponts and Phippses. The top yearlings at Keeneland or Saratoga sales can bring prices of more than a million dollars, and the buyers frequently have “Sheik” in their title. Racing is the ultimate sport of inheritance; the horses are valued for their genes, and the wealthy owners perpetuate both their and their animals’ bloodlines. Into this club have crashed the owners of California Chrome, Steve Coburn and Perry Martin, who were called “dumb asses” for buying the mare that produced California Chrome. It is an epithet they wear proudly, displaying a green donkey on their racing silks. These are guys more comfortable on the rail than in a box, more familiar with a bunch of busted pari-mutuel tickets in their pockets than a mint julep glass in their hand.
Like Seabiscuit, California Chrome is running for all those who have been knocked on their “dumb asses” in these recent hard years and are struggling to get back up; for those who think that the game is rigged by the one percent and that they’ll never have a chance; for those whose kids end up in debt instead of armed with a trust fund; for those who didn’t even have to be told their whole lives they wouldn’t make it because they already knew. Coburn knows what his colt, now worth millions and millions of dollars, represents: “In my opinion, this horse, what he’s doing for two guys who work their butts off every day just to put beans and bacon on the table, gives everybody else the incentive to say, ‘We can do it, too.’”